Trent’s Knowing And Intentional Rejection Of Justification Sola Fide

After the theologians the bishops took the floor, song speaking for two or more hours at a time. Some were well-versed in the subject. Their approach, like that of the theologians, was generally framed by Scholastic categories, and, despite Pole’s words, they often seemed unwilling to concede any merit whatsoever to Luther’s position. There were, however, important exceptions. Seripando was convinced, for instance, that the decree had to dispense with Scholastic distinctions and categories and that it had to take religious experience into account. Such experience was, after all, the starting point for Luther’s teaching.*

On July 6 the bishop of La Cava, Tommaso Sanfelice, made bold to speak of the “slave will” and justification by “faith alone,” expressions identified with Luther. After another intervention on July 17 he overheard Dionisio de Zanettini, the Franciscan bishop of Chironissa and Melopotamos, say he was “either a knave or a fool.” That was the spark that set off one of the most famous incidents in the whole council. When a moment later Sanfelice confronted him face-to-face, Zanetinni repeated the insult. With that Sanfelice grabbed him by his beard and shook him violently, at which Zanetinni should for all to hear, “I have said that the bishop of La Cava is either a knave or a fool, and I shall prove it.”

Colleagues pulled the two men apart, and a semblance of order was restored. The legates of course could not ignore what had happened. They tried to find an equitable solution. It was clear that, despite the offense, Sanfelice was gravely at fault. They confined him to a convent, but released him about a week later when Zanettini made a plea on his behalf. As things turned out, however, the incident marked the end of Sanfelice’s participation in the council—not because of what he had said about justification but because of how he had behaved.

John W. O’Malley | Trent: What Really Happened At The Council (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 108–09.


* O’ Malley refers here perhaps to the theory of Luther’s “tower experience.” Luther himself, however, did not think that the “starting point” for his turn toward the Protestant doctrine of justification was his religious experience or an alleged “tower experience” but his reading of Scripture and other sources. In fact, his shift toward the Reformation began during his lectures on the Psalms in 1513–14 and continued through his lectures on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again culminating at Worms in April, 1521. Luther’s rejection of the medieval consensus on justification was a deliberate, gradual process not a sudden, shattering event.


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  1. I was baptized and raised in the Catholic church. I did notice all the departures from traditional Catholic teaching and practice after Vatican II.

    Years ago I had some extensive correspondence with the Catholic chaplain at my alma mater pointing out how Vatican II had contradicted traditional Catholic teaching, especially the decrees of the Council of Trent. He finally, to my astonishment, ended the correspondence by saying that Trent was just for the 16th Century, it was now the 21st Century, and so we had new doctrines. I have been aware of the departures from Trent (except for justification by faith AND works, which unfortunately has never been revisited), but I was surprised at the casual jettison of Trent. He is just one priest, but it was an indication.

  2. Scott, I’m not quite sure technologicallly how to respond to your comment; but that in itself is an immense change from the 1950s-60s. The we were all taught that nothing, nothing had ever changed in the Catholic church ever since Jesus made Peter the first Pope.

    UNLIKE the Protestants, who changed what they believed in all the time. The Catholic church never changed because it never needed to.

    And then Vatican II. WOW!!!

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